Riding the Paris Métro home from her office in 2007, Elizabeth Ragsdale began flipping through an issue of Us Weekly given to her by the receptionist at the law firm where she worked as a paralegal. But just as she was about to sink into the magazine’s tales of Lindsay Lohan and Brangelina, Ragsdale noticed a cover line that alarmed her:
“Brittany Murphy: Married to a Con Man?”
There, next to the “Clueless” and “8 Mile” actor, was Simon Monjack, the man Ragsdale had once loved. The guy who proposed to her with a diamond ring from Tiffany’s just two weeks after they met. The father of her son.
“The first feeling I had wasn’t jealousy. It wasn’t: ‘How could he do this?’” she recalled. “It was: ‘That poor woman.’”
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Almost immediately, Ragsdale said she began writing a letter to Murphy. She wanted to tell the 29-year-old newlywed that she felt Us Weekly was right: Monjack was a con man. She wanted to tell the star how he’d lied to, cheated on and ghosted her when she was four months pregnant with their child.
But by then, Ragsdale had not been romantically involved with Monjack for nearly a decade. And he’d never met Elijah, the boy she claimed was his son. “I thought the letter probably would have seemed like me saying: ‘He’s got a kid. He needs to pay child support and you’ve got a lot of money, so you pay it for him.’”
She never sent the note. For the next 14 years, she kept the story private — until this year, when filmmakers approached her about participating in “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” The two-part docuseries, premiering Thursday on HBO Max, investigates Murphy’s unexpected death in 2009, at age 32 — an event that has been shrouded in mystery and spawned endless conspiracy theories.
Monjack, who himself died in 2010 at age 40, just six months after Murphy, has long been at the center of that mystery. Murphy’s cause of death, according to an autopsy, was pneumonia, anemia and multiple drug intoxication; his was acute pneumonia and severe anemia. Both were found dead at the Hollywood Hills home they shared.
An investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ruled out toxic mold in their house. Forensic experts explained that traces of heavy metals found in Murphy’s hair, which her father Angelo Bertolotti claimed as evidence of poisoning, were consistent with someone who regularly dyed their hair. And through it all fans and tabloids alike questioned the nature of Murphy’s relationship with Monjack. She had previously dated wealthy performers like Eminem and Ashton Kutcher. He was an independent film producer with scant credits to his name and a history of legal and financial problems, forced to pay more than $500,000 in a pair of lawsuits in 2006 and 2007 and with four evictions on his record.
In the HBO Max series, Murphy’s co-stars and filmmakers allege that Monjack was interested in Murphy for her money and also controlled various elements of her life: He allegedly urged her to lose weight, forbade her from doing intimate scenes with other men and cut out her agents and managers.
Cynthia Hill, the director of “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” began looking into Monjack last summer, when Blumhouse Television asked if she’d be interested in pursuing a nonfiction series about the star. Hill had previously made an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary about domestic violence and was interested in exploring how “you don’t have to be a poor woman living in rural North Carolina to be a victim of this. Someone in Hollywood who seems to have it all can also be one — and Brittany was.”
But even a dozen years after Murphy’s death, few were willing to talk about her. Numerous relatives and members of her management team declined to participate, though Hill had better luck with fellow directors who’d worked with Murphy, like Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”) and Shawn Levy (“Just Married”).
On a tip from former People magazine reporter Sara Hammel, Hill turned to Ragsdale, who’d declined to talk in the aftermath of Murphy’s death. Despite time’s passage, Ragsdale recalled, she was hesitant: “Why do I have a horse in this race?” Then she spoke to her son, now 22, who encouraged her to share the story she’d only ever written in a yet-to-be-published memoir. “If I can help one woman not do what I did — and what Brittany did — it would be worth it,” she said.
Monjack never took a paternity test, so Ragsdale provided Hill with email exchanges between herself and Monjack in which they discussed Elijah, as well as a photograph of herself pregnant with Monjack’s parents. (The Times independently reviewed this documentation.)
Hill also spoke with a “list of women” whom Monjack “engaged in the same pattern of behavior with” who ultimately decided not to be in the docuseries, she said. “That also gave us confidence in being able to believe Elizabeth. We started seeing the parallels between their stories, and it was like, ‘Hmm.’”
‘A perfect victim’
Ragsdale met Monjack in Paris when she was 33. She’d spent the last decade in New York City, trying to make it as an actor but making ends meet by waitressing and working as a paralegal. She landed some small gigs — “One Life to Live,” an off-Broadway show — and said she lost out to Edie Falco for the part of Carmela on “The Sopranos.” That’s when she decided to move to France to pursue another dream: writing.
She rented an apartment in Montmartre and forced herself to complete a certain number of pages a day. One night, in the midst of writing, Ragsdale’s phone rang. It was one of her American friends: “My boyfriend has a buddy in town who is handsome and British. Come out! They want to take us to dinner.”
Spotting Monjack at the restaurant, Ragsdale was disappointed. He was hardly her type. She liked blond, trim men; he was brunette and heavyset. But as soon as he started talking, she said, she was captivated.
“He had these electric, penetrating eyes,” said Ragsale, now 56. “I just wanted to know more about him. He’s got this charisma that I believed he could charm anybody. Through dinner, he has this big, rich laugh. I just felt like God had put him there, you know?”
Within two weeks, Monjack had taken her to London and proposed to her in the middle of Harrods department store. She started talking to wedding planners at Cliveden House, a luxury hotel in the English countryside popular with royals. They spent time at a villa in Monaco that she said he told her once belonged to Cary Grant.
He bought her expensive clothes and a new cellphone that she said he told her to use only to call him. Sometimes he made jabs about her weight — “Honey, I don’t know if you should wear those jeans” — but she tried to ignore them. She never saw him working and didn’t know where his money came from, but she said she didn’t feel it was her place to ask.
“I am a perfect victim, because I’m from the South. We leave our doors unlocked,” she said, speaking in a thick Alabama drawl. “I’ve had problems with that. I’ll just set my purse down and hold up clothes in a shop, and people will go, ‘Put that purse on you, somebody’s gonna steal it!’ So I had that mentality. I just trusted him.”
It was in Monaco that Monjack’s behavior began to change, Ragsdale said. One night, he wanted to have sex and she did not. He kept pushing the issue, she said, and she grew upset. Then, she alleged, he suddenly broke down in tears and told her he had spinal cancer. He said their trips to Monaco were due to the fact that he was receiving experimental shark cartilage treatments there from the doctor who had “saved Elizabeth Taylor’s life.” (Alison Bennett, a film producer who does not know Ragsdale, says in the HBO Max series that Monjack also told him about the cancer treatment.)
Monjack would return from the treatments with a large bandage on his hand saying he was nauseated, according to Ragsdale. “He always wanted back rubs and it made me more affectionate towards him, though I didn’t see that until it was all over,” she said.
A couple of weeks later, she said he revealed more distressing news: If he wanted to have children, his doctor said he’d have to do it now before the cancer treatments ruined his fertility chances. Already engaged, Ragsdale went off birth control and quickly got pregnant.
But the pregnancy wasn’t easy. Ragsdale was vomiting constantly. Her friends were so worried about her that one of them flew to Monaco to help, Ragsdale said. Upon seeing how emaciated she was, Ragsdale’s friend insisted Monjack take her to a doctor. He did, and she was admitted to Princess Grace Hospital Centre for about a week, she said. She said she has subsequently asked the hospital for her bloodwork history but was told records from over two decades ago no longer exist.
After being discharged from the hospital, Monjack arranged for Ragsdale to return to New York. When she walked into her studio apartment there, she called her fiancé to let him know she had arrived safely.
“Hello?” she said he asked.
“Simon, I made it,” she answered. “I’m here in New York and —”
She thought something was wrong with the phones. She called him back incessantly, but he did not answer. After 24 hours of silence, she decided to call his mother, Linda Monjack.
“I said, ‘Linda, where is Simon?’ She said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, Elizabeth. I have had a private detective following him for weeks now and he does not have cancer. He has not had one surgery. He has bled me dry. I’ve given him all of the money that I have and any money that I’m going to inherit.’”
Linda Monjack did not respond to detailed questions sent to her by The Times through Simon’s brother, James. But in the docuseries, she says she didn’t think her son intentionally lied to anyone about having cancer. Because Simon’s father died at 29 from the disease, his mother says he “probably believed” he had it. She also acknowledges that she did give Simon “copious amounts of money. But I gave it willingly and freely. Probably foolishly, but nevertheless, he didn’t cheat me.”
As for Ragsdale, she said the conversation with Monjack’s mother convinced her to sell her engagement ring — she got roughly $3,000 for it — and use the money to fly to Florida to be with her sister. There, she said, Linda Monjack visited her and was “precious,” taking her to a baby store and purchasing various things for the unborn child.
Simon Monjack and Ragsdale never saw each other again.
“I’m a survivor of Simon Monjack, and I believe that Brittany didn’t survive him,” she said. “She needed somebody around her to say: ‘Get your ass to the doctor. You have pneumonia. You’re sick. Look at you.’ He was letting me be sick like that pregnant until my friend walked in.”
The docuseries suggests that Murphy was more susceptible to illness because her body had been weakened by an eating disorder and potential prescription drug use. When she got sick, Hill suggested, Monjack was so concerned with “outward appearances and what paparazzi would say” that he didn’t want to take her to the doctor.
“I think she was in such a state of mind — and, frankly, arrested development from being a child star — that she didn’t know how to make decisions for herself. So she trusted the people around her to make decisions for her,” the director surmised.“ She is really spiraling when he comes along. He’s going to provide this stability and this care and comfort and he’s not going to go anywhere. Who wouldn’t fall for somebody who adores you? I don’t think that even when she died she knew who Simon really was.”
Ragsdale, meanwhile, is hopeful that her story will help Murphy’s fans understand why the actor was so taken in by Monjack.
“Because they loved Brittany so much, and she doesn’t have a voice anymore — and I’m not saying I’m Brittany’s voice, but I do have a history with him,” she said, beginning to tear up. “There is something there. Still. This may sound sappy and like, ‘Oh, she just wants to make a lot of money on a book’ and yeah, sure, I do. But if this can bring light to a situation a woman is in? That’s what I really want. Because these men exist. These narcissists, sociopaths — they are out there, and they prey on us.”
‘What Happened, Brittany Murphy?’
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)